Once we left Khovd our role in Mongolia changed—from being employed and working for a university to being unemployed and traveling as tourists. Judy's sister Nancy and her husband Steve were coming to Ulaanbaatar for their vacation and we would join them for all but the last week of our stay here. For a couple of days we showed them the sights in Mongolia's capital, and they put up with us as we shuffled belongings from guest house to a friend's apartment, trying to anticipate and pack what we would need for trips to places we've never seen. Our goal was to see some country that there was no time to see when we were teaching five days a week, places we had heard about but never visited. And part of that strategy was to get out of Mongolia the day before our work visas expired so that we could re-enter as tourists, with an extra thirty days to see Naadam. The catch was that we had to go to China, and not by just walking across the border and back. (We opted out of the hitch-hiking option.)
We took Nancy and Steve to our favorites so far, Zaisan, the Winter Palace, Sukhbaatar Square, The Guatalajara Cuban Restaurant. But they also got the inevitable introduction to how Mongolia is. "Why is there garbage piled there
?" asked Steve. "Was that burned on purpose or by accident?" "Have these buildings ever been painted?" All reasonable questions, to which I could only shrug my shoulders. We peered into deep holes in the street or sidewalk where, in our own country, a manhole cover would keep inattentive drivers or pedestrians from injury.
We flew to the Gobi and back, then spent a day traveling to Terelj National Park before heading to China early Saturday morning. We spent an evening looking for a restaurant whose ad in a newspaper promised live Mongolian music, only to discover that the restaurant had not been built yet. Maybe in two months. (We ate great Indian food instead.) It was not a perfect introduction to Mongolia, but maybe it's enough to get the general idea.
For us the transition to being tourists brings with it a loss of our privileged status. While it's better to be tourists than to not see new parts of the country at all, there is a noticeable difference in what we see and how we see it. Touring, with guides or without, is a series of quick stops, and as in this notebook, it produces a list of places visited rather than a story of things discovered. Even traveling this way, Mongolia is not what you expect.